By Kibiwott Koross, Joe Kiarie
KENYA: China destroyed six tonnes of illegal ivory from its stockpile on Monday in a move to curb illegal trade of wildlife trophy.
This came after several calls by international players urging China, regarded by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as a huge destination for contraband ivory, to show major commitment to publicly fight the multi-billion-dollar illegal wildlife trade.
CITES is an international treaty drawn up in 1973 to protect wildlife against over-exploitation, and to prevent international trade from threatening species with extinction.
But having been named as a destination for smuggled ivory, China was expected to destroy thousands of tonnes of ivory believed to be in the country.
Conservation groups say China is the world’s biggest market for ivory.
Ivory can fetch up to $2,000 (Sh173,362) a kilogram on the black market, earning it the nickname “white gold.” This is fuelled by demand in Asia.
But conservationists say the 6.1 metric tonnes destroyed was just a portion of the illegal ivory held by China. They however wouldn’t disclose how big the country’s total stockpile is. The destroyed ivory was recovered from shipments intercepted from Africa by customs officials and from carving factories and shops in China.
Despite CITES having applauded China for the crushing of the six tonnes of ivory, conservationist in Kenya are not moved, saying the size was too small. Others say China was actually processing the ivory and lying to the world that it was destroying them.
Kenya United Against Poaching (KUAPO) coordinator Salisha Chandra wondered why China was allowed to “process” the ivory instead of burning them.
“It was a total lie. China did not destroy any ivory. What happened is that they were crushed into powder which means it can be used as an end product altogether. Why didn’t we see them burn as it has happened in Kenya?” she asked.
In July 2011, retired President Kibaki set five tonnes of elephant tusks and ivory carvings ablaze. Kibaki burned 335 elephant tusks obtained from168 jumbos. His predecessor Daniel Moi burnt 12 tonnes in 1989.
Chandra said it is suspicious why China, USA and other nations outside Africa were not embarking on a complete destruction of ivory.
In June 2013, the Philippines burned and crushed more than five tonnes of ivory worth an estimated $10 million (Sh866.8 million) confiscated since 2009, becoming the first Asian country to do so. In November, the US destroyed six tonnes of ivory seized over 25 years. Gabon burned nearly five tonnes in 2012.
Jim Nyamu, the founder and director of Elephant Neighbors Center, says while China’s destruction of the ivory was a major move in the war against poaching, more needs to be done.
“Six tonnes of ivory in China is a drop in the ocean. We know they have tonnes of raw ivory in the stores, which we need to see being destroyed as well,” he says.
While the destruction aimed at demonstrating the country’s determination to discourage illegal ivory trade, the conservationist says the fact that it remains legal to buy and sell ivory items in China amounts to double speak.
“As long as it remains okay for Chinese consumers to keep buying legal ivory, poaching will continue regardless of how many illegal tusks the government destroys,” warns Nyamu. “We must now pressurise China and other countries to ban trade in ivory as opposed to just destroying”.
Smuggled ivory has seen the number of elephants drop. Kenya is among the countries that have lost her elephants in the recent past. In the past two years, Kenya lost about 700 elephants, with several tonnes of ivory destined to China and Malaysia being seized at the Mombasa port.
According to KWS spokesman Paul Mbugua, slightly less than 300 elephants were killed by poachers last year compared to 389 in 2012.
Mbugua credited the recently passed wildlife law, which calls for life sentence of people found poaching or trading in rhino horn and elephant tusk.
CITES says that around 22,000 elephants were slaughtered in 2012.
John E Scanlon, CITES Secretary-General, said the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP16), held in Bangkok in March last year witnessed unprecedented levels of international cooperation in addressing the threats posed to wildlife, to people and their livelihoods through poaching and smuggling, especially with respect to the African elephant.
“At that meeting all parties to CITES showed that they were prepared to work together in the interest of the African elephant. They spoke with one voice on the need to take decisive actions in stopping the alarming trends in poaching and smuggling,” Scanlon said in a statement.
But Tom Losoli of Osuta Wildlife Foundation in Samburu, governments need to protect elephants from the poachers to end ivory trafficking.
Most hit areas
“We cannot afford to complain about where our ivory is headed to if we cannot protect our elephants. Let’s wait and see if what happened in China will have any positive impact on the African elephant,” he said.
Samburu conservancy is among the regions most hit by poachers in the past two years. Others are Narok and Laikipia, where an elephant was being killed almost daily.
But Paula Kahumbu, the executive director of WildlifeDirect, supports the crushing of the ivory by China saying burning it would have caused huge environmental degradation.
“Burning ivory would have required a lot of gasoline and you can imagine the kind of pollution it could have generated,” she said. “I am sure the crushed ivory will not come back to the market or be used as byproduct. We need to be cognizant of the fact that we should embrace new technologies to curb pollution.”
But only a day after the contraband ivory were crushed in China, authorities in Malawi netted over 120 kilograms of illegal ivory aboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight at the Kamuzu International Airport.
According to Malawi media reports, the goods were destined for China although the owner is yet to be found.
Fears over extinction
“The stuff’s tag indicated China as its destination but the owner of the items is not known,” newspapers quoted Malawi Police spokesperson Peterson Botha.
It is reported that there are slightly over 600,000 elephants in the world, with about 35,000 in Kenya according to KWS.
But there are fears that the animals could be extinct in a decade should the poaching continue. Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick of the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage says insatiable and unsustainable demand for ivory from Asian countries had fuelled elephant poaching.